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Observations placeholder

Thomas Midgley, Jr. – CFCs and lead in petrol



Type of Spiritual Experience


Number of hallucinations: 1


from Wikipedia and edited for brevity

A description of the experience

Thomas Midgley, Jr. – CFCs and lead in petrol

Midgley was an American mechanical engineer and chemist. He was a key figure in a team of chemists, led by Charles F. Kettering, that developed the tetraethyllead (TEL) additive to gasoline as well as some of the first chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Over the course of his career, Midgley was granted over a hundred patents. He was lauded for his scientific contributions during his lifetime, but the negative environmental impact of his work has only now become clear.
Midgley discovered that the addition of Tetraethyllead to gasoline prevented "knocking" in internal combustion engines.  The company named the substance "Ethyl", avoiding all mention of lead in reports and advertising.  In 1923, Midgley took a prolonged vacation to cure himself of lead poisoning.  Despite this he continued to declare it safe.  In April 1923, General Motors created the General Motors Chemical Company (GMCC) to supervise the production of TEL by the DuPont company and Kettering was elected as president, Midgley was vice president.  During this time at least ten people died and numerous cases of lead poisoning occurred at the TEL plant in Dayton, Ohio. 

Another plant was “plagued by more cases of lead poisoning, hallucinations, insanity, and then five deaths in quick succession.”

On October 30, 1924, Midgley participated in a press conference to demonstrate the apparent safety of TEL. In this demonstration, he poured TEL over his hands, then placed a bottle of the chemical under his nose and inhaled its vapor for sixty seconds, declaring that he could do this every day without succumbing to any problems whatsoever.  Midgley sought treatment for lead poisoning in Europe a few months after this demonstration at the press conference.

In 1941, the American Chemical Society gave Midgley its highest award, the Priestley Medal. This was followed by the Willard Gibbs Award in 1942. He also held two honorary degrees and was elected to the United States National Academy of Sciences. In 1944, he was elected president and chairman of the American Chemical Society.

In 1940, at the age of 51, Midgley contracted poliomyelitis, which left him severely disabled. This led him to devise an elaborate system of strings and pulleys to help others lift him from bed. This system was the eventual cause of his own death when he was entangled in the ropes of this device and died of strangulation at the age of 55.

Midgley died three decades before the ozone-depleting effects of CFCs in the atmosphere became widely known. Another adverse effect of Midgley's work was the release of large quantities of lead into the atmosphere as a result of the large-scale combustion of leaded gasoline all over the world.

High atmospheric lead levels have been associated with serious long-term health problems, including neurological impairment, and with violence and criminality in cities.

 J. R. McNeill, an environmental historian, has remarked that Midgley "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history."

Bill Bryson wrote that Midgley possessed "an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny."

Justin Rowlatt, BBC News - Given that lead poisoning had been around so long, the actions of the chemist Thomas Midgley Jr appear to have been reckless in the extreme

The source of the experience

Ordinary person

Concepts, symbols and science items




Science Items


Activities and commonsteps